November 6, 2012
“Every four years, we start a mechanism up where about 130 or 140 million people go and do something all at once,” says David Becker. “What other business does that in the world?”
Becker, the director of election initiatives at the Pew Center on the States, is talking about the act of voting in a presidential election. “Think about how you set that up, how you get that all taken care of,” he adds. “Election officials in this country do a pretty darn good job.”
That said, Becker and Thad Hall, an associate professor of political science at the University of Utah, are both working on ways to improve the voting process over time. This past Saturday, they were panelists in “Political Machines: Innovations in Campaigns and Elections,” a symposium hosted by the National Museum of American History’s Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation. The event covered all aspects of the election; museum curators, historians, political scientists, campaign strategists, pollsters and policymakers discussed the role technology plays in advertising, campaigning and polling. In the final segment, focused on voting, Becker and Hall shed some light on the web-based and mobile technologies that could potentially change the way American citizens register and cast their votes going forward.
“Everyone would agree we want all eligible voters, but only eligible voters, to cast a ballot that will be counted,” says Becker. “That is a summary of what we want to do in our democracy. If the answer on how to do that were easy, none of us would be in this room right now.”
Becker, and the Pew Center on the States, sees online voting registration as an obvious opportunity. It is more accurate, he says, since voters are inputting their own information. They are more invested than data entry folks in entering these details correctly. Registering online costs less—3 cents per registration as opposed to 83 cents per paper registration. Not to mention, voters reportedly prefer it. Currently, 13 states offer online registration, up from two states in 2008.
The Pew Center is a proponent of offering voter registration services at more Departments of Motor Vehicles and public agencies. As Becker describes, the organization is also creating a national record-keeping database called the Electronic Registration Information Center (ERIC) that would combine information from different states and agencies in an effort to keep voting records up to date.
Becker goes on to explain how Pew is trying to make it easier for people to get their voting questions answered. Where is my polling place? What is on my ballot? Pew’s Voting Information Project has partnered with AT&T, Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Foursquare and Politics 360° to offer apps and embeddable tools to provide this information to individuals based on their locations. (You can find the tools on VIP’s Web site.)
This brings us now to the actual act of voting. Thad Hall, author of Electronic Elections: The Perils and Promises of Digital Democracy, is an expert on online voting. In a presentation following Becker’s, Hall asks, if we can bank online, why can’t we vote online?
Citizens of Estonia have had to option to vote online since 2005. Research shows that while only 2 percent of voters in Estonia took advantage of this opportunity in 2005, that number grew to 25 percent by 2011. “You have had this big movement of people voting online,” says Hall. “And once people vote online once, they really like it.”
There are certainly pros to voting online. “Think about the information you already get online and the information you may need when you go vote,” says Hall. You can find out more about the candidates, read tweets about the election and watch video clips from the presidential debates. “You have the information you want right in front of you,” says Hall. “One of the things that we want people to do is to make informed choices. The Internet is this great way of doing this.”
Online voting enfranchises people who have difficulty voting, such as transient members of the military, expatriates, students and business professionals working abroad. Casting electronic ballots also reduces the room for error. There are no hanging chads or confusing pencil markings, as there can be on paper ballots. Then, of course, in the wake of disasters like Hurricane Sandy, when polling places may be flooded and poll workers and voters are displaced, online voting may offer an easier option. The state of New Jersey announced three days ago that displaced residents can vote by emailing or faxing their ballots to their county clerks.
“Now, all good things have a downside,” says Hall. For one, there is a digital divide. “A lot of people who are younger are more likely to have access to certain technologies. There are also racial divides and income divides. People who have lower incomes often don’t have computers. These are issues you have to consider if you want to use something like Internet voting.”
With online voting, there are also a lot of hacking concerns. Could hackers go into the system and change votes? Of course, that would be a serious breach of security. “When we think about technology and voting, we have to also ask, are we implementing these things in a way that is effective? And have people thought through the details?” says Hall.
Jeffrey Brodie, deputy director of the Lemelson Center and the moderator for this panel discussion, asks the audience to weigh in on the question, using handheld response devices they were given on entering the symposium. “To what extent do you agree with this statement: I would feel comfortable voting by the Internet or a mobile device,” says Brodie.
Seventy-six percent of the attendees answer that they agree or strongly agree. Hall, who believes that online voting is the way of the future, is excited by the results. However, according to a national opinion poll in 2008, the majority of people don’t support voting in this way, he says.
What do you think? Would you be comfortable casting your vote online?